Wednesday August 26th

Optimizing your week as a Virtual PhD student


  • One of the things I’ve really been thinking a lot about was how to add order into the chaos of existing and getting work done virtually. I am often incredibly busy, and when my virtual schedule first started, I noticed that my productivity hours flipped; I prefer to stay up really late and get up late.
  • While this is dependent on the person, I’ve been asking around about various tips and tricks people have done to stay sane working and living in the same environment.
  • During one of my fellowships this summer, one of the founders of a company said that pre-frontal cortex rest is super important. You need time to think that is focused and interrupted, and it is for this reason that they go to sleep by 8pm. They also get up early because many persons are not up then, so they can get focused work done.

Deep work

  • Deep work is very difficult for me to achieve during the day, because everyone is up. I either fall into one of two camps; I will either respond to you and be aware of the things you are telling me, or I will be so distracted by what I am working on that I will miss meetings completely (which happened to me twice this summer). I have gotten better at not missing meetings by setting an alarm and by buying a dry-erase board. It sits on my desk, and I write every week up, cross out items as I go through the day, and make a new one every week. If it isn’t on my whiteboard, it’s very easy for me to miss completely.
  • I also have a section on my whiteboard that is for longer-term projects to keep in mind, and the other side of my whiteboard has longer-term PhD goals.
  • The root of my whiteboard planning is my online calendar. I colour code everything. My colour code also has ranges of importance, from not so important (grey), to very important (usually red). This summer I also had the pleasure of balancing both a separate work calendar and a personal calendar. Not fun. Not fun at all.

Optimal times

  • The founder mentioned that it’s good to figure out when you are most productive. During my summer internship, I was fortunate to have access to tools that would track this for me (I am not a subscriber on my own of such products). It gave me insight into a lot of my habits.
  • I am not a morning person. I was raised as one, but I’m really not at my best at this time. I grew up working late night shows in theatres and shooting splits that would start at 8pm and go until 4am. Therefore, I realized over summer that expecting productivity or work at 8am was near-impossible for me.
  • I started doing things like reading in the mornings instead, because it was a low-effort task for me. This has seemed to work.
  • I like working really late at night when it is quiet, and when I won’t be interrupted. So this has seemed to work for me.

Blocking off times

  • I am a habitual email-checker. This is bad. I learned over summer, with advice from my manager over summer and labmates from another lab that I should train persons I work with to expect responses from me at times of the day. Professors are great at this. Instead, my manager said that I should block off specific times to check my email, and then leave it alone otherwise. Nope. Don’t look at it.
  • Similarly, during the times of focused work, avoid distractions. My advisor has a laptop with no browsers, that he uses when he is working. Another postdoc friend said that he simply leaves his phone in another room, and another said they turn off their phone. This was easier for me when I had a flip phone, to be honest. But thank you airplane mode.
  • Also, as others suggest, Pomodoro Technique

Reading is important

  • I think that during one’s PhD, quiet time for reading isn’t emphasized enough. I’ve specifically blocked off times to read because it’s important to me. And I try to read not necessarily technical papers during this time (I can do that during blocked off “work” times). I’ve been reading quite a bit lately on Ethnography, for example.

Taking breaks

  • One of my coworkers this summer would go for a run in the middle of the day. Others would garden. I learned over summer that I very easily got tired of virtual meetings and conferencing, so I would take an hour in the middle of the day, turn off the lights, put my electronics to sleep or off, and take a nap. This worked wonders and energized me for my tasks for the rest of the day.
  • Also, as I had said before, I work best nocturnally, so it gave me energy to get work done when everyone else had gone to sleep.

Just say no

  • This has been the most difficult thing for me to do, to be honest. It’s easy for me to say yes to helping to organize a thing, or speak at a thing, or to contribute in some way, because it lines up with my personality and my values. But it can be exhausting and overwhelming. I’m still struggling with this, but I’m getting better over time.
  • I’ve gotten better at saying no to certain blocks of time, though (just say you’re not available during these times, which are your focused times).

Alienation and doing Other things

  • I listen to podcasts. It’s a low-effort way to have some noise in the room without having the distraction of music.
  • I also have lab-time, am on some Slack groups and this summer was able to be in groups that had virtual games, virtual chats, Twitch streams, Improv sessions, virtual yoga, and I even joined a reading and a writing group.

A lot of this is common sense

  • But it’s really difficult to implement, especially if you’re a good person driven to do good things in the world that have impact and hep people. But it’s really important, especially during the time of virtual time, to protect your time and your energy.
  • I hope you had as much fun reading this as I did writing it! Have a great, day and a balanced and restful week!

And that’s it

Written on August 26, 2020